There is no shortage of great side-scrolling MetroidVania games on the Switch. It seems every week brings another great one. But sure enough, The Messenger from Sabotage is yet another such game at the very top of its artform. Pulling from the glorious legacy of Ninja Gaiden, and familiar to those who have only played recent retro-styled gems like Shovel Knight, The Messenger tells the tale of a hapless ninja who must take a sacred scroll to the top of a perilous mountain to save the world from the return of a vicious demon army. It’s very cliche, but The Messenger plays it like it knows this. Every bit of dialog and interaction between the Messenger and the NPCs is tongue in cheek and filled with jokes at the genre and the industry’s expense. But even if it took itself seriously, The Messenger would still be one of the very best games on the Nintendo Switch this year.
The Messenger begins life as an 8-bit side-scrolling platformer along the same vein as Shovel Knight and Ninja Gaiden. But about midway through, when you think you’ve “won”, the whole 8-bit art becomes 16-bit, and suddenly you’re playing a MetroidVania and the story just keeps going. It’s a wonderful way to not only make sure The Messenger doesn’t lose its juice or slow down in terms of gameplay, but also to progress the story in both sense of art and gameplay. It’s like a physically tangible jump through time, and it’s glorious for it.
Like the current popular indie darling Dead Cells, The Messenger’s controls are incredibly responsive. I’ve played the entirety of the game in handheld mode, and I’m happy to say I’ve not yet had any of the hand-cramping that usually comes with tense sessions in that format. And Messenger begs you to be a jumping and fighting expert too. While you have upgradeable health, things knock you down fast and hard and it’s not long before you’re dying pretty frequently. But instead of a frustrating Game Over screen, you have an impish little demon friend who resurrects you and takes your “money” until you’ve repaid your debt. The money is what you use to power up skills, so it evens out. The save spots are frequent, but not so frequent for death to lose all meaning, either. It’s really tuned quite well overall.
As you unlock new moves and tools, combat becomes more and more layered, making for some really awesome moments when you as the Messenger manage to eek out a level or a boss fight with just one health bar left. There’s a rather difficult side-quest to collect 40-some odd green coins that are hidden throughout the game, too. But I can safely bet that I won’t ever really see my way towards getting them all. Making it through the death-trap levels of the Messenger will be good enough for me. Still, there’s supposedly a really neat reward for those who manage to get them all.